Ovi focused

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Alex Ovechkin’s focus remains on trying to help the Washington Capitals qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs after “a sad day” of seeing longtime teammate and friend Evgeny Kuznetsov traded to the Carolina Hurricanes prior to the 2024 NHL Trade Deadline on Friday.

The Capitals (30-23-9), who defeated the Chicago Blackhawks 4-1 on Saturday, are three points behind the Detroit Red Wings for the second wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference.

“Right now, we’re still fighting for a playoff spot,” the Washington captain said after the morning skate Saturday. “You try to do your best to get ready for the next game and, obviously, it’s not our job to make deals, to make trades. It’s up to [general manager Brian MacLellan] and our office to do that kind of stuff. But last night was kind of a sad day for us. It was, especially for me.”

The No. 26 pick by the Capitals at the 2010 NHL Draft, Kuznetsov played 11 seasons for them and helped Washington win the Stanley Cup in 2018 when he led the playoffs with 32 points (12 goals, 20 assists) in 24 games. But the 31-year-old center struggled with his consistency in recent seasons and had 17 points (six goals, 11 assists) in 43 games this season before entering the NHL/NHL Players’ Association Player Assistance Program for the second time in his career on Feb. 5.

The Capitals placed Kuznetsov on waivers March 2, hoping to give him a fresh start with a new team. After being unclaimed, Kuznetsov was assigned to Hershey and had been practicing with the American Hockey League team since Tuesday before being traded to the Hurricanes.

Ovechkin said he did not talk to Kuznetsov after the trade other than to say, “good luck.”

“I hope he’s going to be better,” the Capitals left wing said. “I hope he’s going to have a fresh start and I wish him luck.”

Trading Kuznetsov left Washington with only five players remaining from its 2018 Stanley Cup team: Ovechkin, defenseman John Carlson and forwards Tom Wilson, T.J. Oshie (out with an upper-body injury) and Nicklas Backstrom (on long-term injured reserve with a hip injury).

“It’s sad, but we understand it’s a business,” Ovechkin said. “For us as hockey players, it’s our job to go out there and show the best that we can do, and it’s the GM job to do what they have to do best.”

Ovechkin and the Capitals are facing the reality they might miss the playoffs for the second straight season after missing only once between 2008-2022. The trade of Kuznetsov for a third-round pick in the 2025 NHL Draft was the last of three Washington made before the Trade Deadline to acquire pieces for the future.

The Capitals also traded forward Anthony Mantha to the Vegas Golden Knights on Tuesday for a second-round pick in the 2024 NHL Draft and a fourth-round selection in the 2026 NHL Draft, and defenseman Joel Edmundson was moved to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday for a third-round pick in the 2024 draft and a fifth-round pick in the 2025 NHL Draft.

Washington coach Spencer Carbery sensed trading Kuznetsov hit Ovechkin particularly hard.

“I think it’s a little different for him because he has such a strong relationship with ‘Kuz’ and they’re so close and their families are so close,” Carbery said. “I think, though, at the end of it, the hockey; yeah, it’s important, it’s what we do and we up it up here, but for ‘O’ it’s his family, it’s the human part of it. He just wants the best for Kuz and his wife and his kids, so that’s what you can tell.”

MacLellan said last week that when he spoke with Ovechkin about his plans for the Deadline, the 38-year-old would’ve preferred they didn’t trade away players.

“I mean, he’s different; Ovi wants to win,” MacLellan said. “He puts pressure on us, ‘I want to win,’ which is a good thing. I get it. That’s why we will try to remain competitive, and I think we are with our younger players.”

Young forwards such as Connor McMichael, 23, Aliaksei Protas, 23, Hendrix Lapierre, 22, and Ivan Miroshnichenko, 20, have shown promise this season, along with defensemen Rasmus Sandin, 24, and Martin Fehervary, 24. And MacLellan hopes to use some of the draft picks the Capitals acquired to trade for more younger, NHL-ready players this offseason.

That’s Ovechkin’s hope too.

“I’m pretty sure he knows what to do,” Ovechkin said of MacLellan. “I’m not a GM. But I’m pretty sure next year he’ll sign some experienced guys, maybe.”

Adding more experienced players would help the Capitals’ rebuild and Ovechkin’s pursuit of Wayne Gretzky’s NHL record of 894 goals. With 840 goals in 19 NHL seasons, including 18 in 58 games this season, Ovechkin needs 55 goals to break the record.

But Ovechkin is more concerned with getting back to the playoffs after missing last season for the first time since 2014. That’s why he wished Washington was in a better position before the Trade Deadline.

“I’m hoping every year something is going to happen,” he said. “I’m hoping every year we’re going to be in the playoffs, like previous years. But, like I said, our job is to get ready for the next game and we’ll see what’s going to happen. And I hope next year we’re going to be better.”